text by Kelly O’Mara

The first step is admitting it: ‘Hi, my name is triathlon, and I have a drafting problem.’

Like many of us, I spent years in denial, thinking most of the people who drafted were cheaters. If they wanted to avoid being stuck behind someone’s wheel, they could. Drafting, I thought, wasn’t really a big problem.

It’s unclear what someone trying to not draft is even supposed to do at this point

This isn’t the case anymore. It’s become impossible to deny that on our increasingly crowded and flat courses, the packs are inescapable. Some of those people are cheaters, but some of them are just victims of math. At races where the swarms can swallow up a rider, it’s unclear what someone trying to not draft is even supposed to do at this point. That our expectation is simply for athletes to ride fast enough and hard enough to pass and then drop large lines of dozens of riders, only to then be swallowed back up or swarmed by another group, is unreasonable and essentially impossible.

Under Ironman rules, the draft zone is 12m. There were 2,370 people who started Ironman Arizona this past weekend, which means the entire field would have stretched nearly from the start of the bike course to the turnaround point; if – and this is an important if – they were evenly spaced out and going the exact same speed.

Of course, the problem is, everyone’s not spaced out exactly evenly or going the same speed. By the time the professional men were finishing the first of three laps at Arizona on Sunday, they were running smack into the back of large groups of slower age-group swimmers starting their ride – just to make the drafting issues worse.

The best professional women in the world, while fighting for a championship title, often find themselves mixed up with men.

A large portion of the athletes now come out of the water in a small window. This is especially true as everyone’s become faster across the board. At championship races, where the discrepancies in swimming abilities are even smaller, the density is even greater. At Kona, a large percentage of the age-group men got on their bikes within a ten minute period. And then, to further complicate matters, they’re all relatively equivalent cyclists. At the 70.3 World Championships, the 25-29 year old men, 30-34 men, and 35-39 men’s waves, started back-to-back on a fairly flat course and by the time they got off the bike it was one giant unavoidable mass of fast men. To blame that on any one individual and not on the system is to avoid our responsibility and complicity every time we sign up for a race we know is a “draft-fest.”

For the women, the crowd issues can be even more complicated. While there are – for now – fewer of us, and so we can, if given the chance, have the opportunity for a cleaner race, we typically become unwillingly enmeshed in the men’s race around us. The best professional women in the world, while fighting for a championship title, often find themselves mixed up with men. This seems problematic for a declaring a clean winner.

If we just continue to pretend non-drafting triathlon doesn’t have a drafting problem, we’re lying to ourselves and our lies will ultimately kill the sport.

We are all now at a tipping point for addressing this before it bankrupts our sport. As so many courses become flatter and more people are crammed into multiple loops, our drafting problem is threatening the legitimacy of the races and the results. It is corroding the accomplishment and, in turn, the whole point.

Finding a solution may require smaller fields – which may mean less profit or higher registration prices. It may require separate days for men and women or much more spaced out wave starts. It may require different kinds of bike courses to actually allow for breaks in the field. It may require something more dramatic, like separate lanes of travel on wider roads. It may require all these things and some I haven’t thought of. But if we just continue to pretend non-drafting triathlon doesn’t have a drafting problem, we’re lying to ourselves and our lies will ultimately kill the sport.

The first step is admitting it.

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